Revisiting the Sykes-Picot Agreement

As the centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement rapidly approaches, the time is now to reflect upon its vast implications.

Officially recognized as the Asia Minor Agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was negotiated and agreed upon between 1915 and 1916 by the British diplomat Mark Sykes and the French diplomat François Georges-Picot.  After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab provinces outside the Arabian Peninsula were divided into two regions.  Region (a) was placed under the French “sphere of influence” and encompassed modern-day Syria and Jordan; region (b) was placed under the British “sphere of influence” and encompassed modern-day Iraq.

The following passage from the Sykes-Picot Agreement encapsulates the overarching theme of the document:

As it is accordingly understood between the French and British governments:

That France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab states or a confederation of Arab states (a) and (b) marked on the annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.

The vague nature of the wording within the Sykes-Picot Agreement has certainly raised a multitude of questions over the past century.  Subsequently, an “artificial state” narrative emerged, which has come to define Iraq unlike any other state.  This narrative has been promoted by journalists and political commentators alike to increasingly highlight and oversimplify the underlining problems of this troubled region.

The borders that the Sykes-Picot Agreement established are certainly rife with blood and are emblematic of the colonial era.  The agreement was initially created without any Arab input, and the intent was clearly to fragment Mesopotamia in an effort to protect commercial interests.  However, moving forward, could there be other factors beyond the ills of colonialism that have starkly contributed to the sectarian and ethnic violence that has raged throughout Syria and Iraq?

The intrigue surrounding this covert agreement, which was amended on numerous occasions, has captured the attention of a new audience.  In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State released a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot.”  The video purports that the dissolution of the border between Syria and Iraq signified the end of the nation-state system imposed upon the Middle East by colonial powers after World War I.  Speaking from a mosque in Mosul, Iraq, the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stated, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”  It has since become rather commonplace for contemporary analysis to connect the sectarian/ethnic violence back to 1916.

Therein lies the problem: by solely faulting European colonists for “drawing lines in the sand” and causing the ensuing wave of generational violence that has plagued the region, we have come to blindly accept a historically inaccurate narrative.  Historical analysis is nuanced and must be understood as such.

The flaws within this narrative were expanded upon most recently by Sara Pursley, a Princeton University post-doctoral fellow, in a contribution to Jadilayya entitled “Lines Drawn on an Empty Map: Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State.”  Pursley astutely counters the pervasive nature of the “artificial state” narrative by suggesting that the borders of Iraq and Syria were not arbitrarily drawn on an “empty map.”  On the contrary, they came to be as many other nation-states have – through “a lot of work and a lot of violence[,] and a lot of work and a lot of violence would go into their reconstruction.”

Consequently, the Islamic State is now aggressively seeking to promote this “artificial state” narrative to generate support for their well-calculated plot to establish a “pure” Sunni Arab state in the heart of the Middle East.  Their plot is strikingly similar to that of the Nazis of World War II as they rape, pillage, and murder anyone who does not fit their warped criteria of a true Muslim.  As this occurs, the mystique of the Sykes-Picot Agreement continues to gain momentum and somewhat validates claims purported by the likes of the Islamic State and their counterparts in the region as being “victims” of history.  Be it the Islamic State, Shi’a militiamen or the Kurdish Peshmerga, this narrative resonates with many and has cultivated a geopolitical atmosphere within the Middle East in which atrocities are accepted as a norm – due to the region’s history.   

It is imperative to understand that “natural” borders do not exist – particularly within the Middle East.  The formations of a nation and a state do not occur in unison, but rather make for a timely and often painful process of delineating borders.  Very seldom does a nation exist prior to the state.  To that point, it is naïve to believe that simply establishing homogeneous, ethno-sectarian borders to accommodate the demands of Sunnis, Shi’a, Kurds, Christians, Jews and other minorities will somehow mitigate the current level of violence and destruction ravaging the Middle East.  Borders do not commit atrocities; people do.  The simplicity of such logic fails to account for personal and collective responsibility.  Peace does not emerge without a collective and committed effort from all parties involved. Bypassing this critical component lowers behavioral expectations and absolves the people of the Middle East of any culpability for their actions.

Would the international community shrug their shoulders in acceptance if Mexicans or Texans sought to resolve their border grievances with relentless waves of kidnappings, rapes, beheadings, mass shootings and suicide bombings?  Why are expectations at all different within the Middle East?

The impetus must now fall upon the people of the Middle East, as well as the international community, to draw a new “line in the sand” regarding the finger-pointing.  In doing so, perhaps all parties may start to move beyond this unrelenting chapter that has allowed history to continuously repeat itself for the past hundred years.

Owen McCormack is a teacher in New York City.  He holds a Master of Arts degree in history from the City College of New York and a Master of Science degree in special education from the College of Staten Island.  He enjoys analyzing the complexities of today’s social and political issues through a religious/historical prism.  His writing has been featured in American and